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12:46 AM on 07.27.2013  

Tom Nook is not a loan shark

Earlier this week, I purchased my first ever Shim Megami Tensei game. Concurrent with that purchase, and my previous purchase of the latest Fire Emblem, was a $30 credit in the Nintendo eShop. Eager to continue pioneering my way into the frontiers of game franchises I've never tried, I used that credit to download Animal Crossing: New Leaf.


I'm a devotee of Harvest Moon. The best parts of RPGs were pieced together to construct a staircase of gradual improvement at an unfrustrating pace and with low stakes: your grandfather left you this crappy farm, level it up to make money and become popular with these folksy small-town heart-of-a-nation folks you live next to. It felt very personal, but also provided steady microdoses of dopamine as you enjoyed the growing complexity and profitability of your farming enterprise.

A large part of what made the original Harvest Moon (along with some, but not all of its descendants) so satisfying was that there were many choices to be made at the margin, and a lot of them didn't matter that much. Regardless of how you chose to layout your farm, or what order you completed tasks in, or how frequently you gave gifts to the townsfolk, or how much effort you put into the expansion of your home and other buildings, or how you laid out grazing land versus farming land, the results of your efforts were gratifying without any larger context or endgame. There was an endgame, of a sort, in that Dad would show up and judge your life at the end, but there was no "game over" condition. You could "beat" the game without putting that much thought into your actions, but the thought you did put in felt good. It was never necessary to get a horse, but that made it easier to make money and opened up time in the day to do other things. It was never necessary to get as many cows as possible and get the best milk from all of them, it was just fun to increase the profitability of your farm.

Maybe this isn't the most efficient... Ah, forget it, doesn't matter.

Animal Crossing is terrifying because it's all of that with less context and more mostly unnecessary choices to make at the margin and a bunch of useless junk to collect. The addictive nature of this formula is mitigated somewhat by the real time progression of the game world, limiting what can be done in a given day, but the gradually increasing list of stuff to do is turning the game into the time sink I know it can be, and I've only been playing for a few days.

The main motivation so far seems to be the purchasing of increasingly expensive extensions to your initially diminutive house from one Tom Nook. Nook is a bit of a bogeyman to fans of the franchise as I understand it. He's often characterized as a loan shark, enslaving players to the almighty bell with growing home loans to pay off. This is completely unfair to the chubby raccoon dog in a sweater vest.

Tom Nook not only gave me a home, no questions asked, for what turned out to be a pretty small down payment, he allowed me as much time as I needed to pay off the remainder through what he called a home loan. Home loans don't come with a 0% APR, pay when you can deal. Nook wasn't enslaving me to any long-term debt, he was getting together the resources and labor to build me a house (overnight, mind you) and telling me I could pay him back whenever. He's more like a rich uncle than a loan shark.

Tom Nook is more generous than most people have ever been, show the guy some respect. Then again, maybe I'm just paying him too quickly to see the scene in which Nook's hired thugs grab me on the way to the post office and break my legs.

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6:49 PM on 06.06.2013  

Building a PC 3: Flesh and Blood

With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC. This is part 3 in a series that aims to give the neophyte all of the most important, basic pieces of knowledge when choosing from the many options in the world of computer hardware, skipping over unnecessary details

The titles of each section below will become clickable links as the sections are completed.

1) Heart and Soul
CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.

2) Bones and Cartilage
Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.

3) Flesh and blood
Case - Make it last.
Cooling - Liquid or Gas?

4) Memories~
Storage - SSD, HDD or both?
Optical drive - Nah.

5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans
Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter

6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.

7) Other Sundry
Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency

Flesh and Blood
The case into which the components are installed is a part of the system that many new computer builders fail to give any thought. One would assume that it's just a hunk of metal and plastic, and it doesn't really matter what particular shape it's in. As for cooling, it's often assumed that any fan will do the trick. That may be true, but there are actually many factors that make one case or fan better than another case or fan, and most of it has to do with silence and air flow. Don't just buy any case, think about your choices before you commit to a case that doesn't quite meet your needs.

A computer case is commonly held to require several properties to be of high quality:
1) Mostly or all thick metal construction. Premium cases are all aluminum.
2) Cable management options; i.e. cutouts in what's called the "motherboard tray" through which power supply cables can be routed behind the motherboard to keep them out of the way of the airflow in the case.
3) Thermal design and acoustic design: how well does air flow through the case? Is there positive or negative pressure in the case? Does the case keep most of the sound produced inside of the system inside of the system?
4) Nice, big cpu cutout on the motherboard tray, as well as other matters of convenience.
5) Room for components. If that long graphics card can't fit, good cases have removable drive trays to make room.
6) Front I/O ports. Are there USB 3.0 ports on the front?
7) Aesthetics. Does it look good on or by your desk?

Everything beyond that is about personal taste and ease of use. For example, whether a side-panel window is a selling point will depend on your tastes, and whether the I/O ports should be on the front or the top of the case will depend on whether the system will be on a desk or on the ground. These little details are important to consider to find the right case for you.

Before going into detail on any of the above, it's important to understand the different sizes. There are size classifications and style classifications, and the only ones I'll discuss here are those relevant to the motherboard sizes discussed in part 2. The two styles to consider are "tower" and "desktop". A tower is what most people think of when they picture a computer case, standing upright like an XBox 360 with the motherboard oriented vertically. A "desktop" case is a more stout option with the motherboard oriented horizontally, such as this Cooler Master case. Most will want to go with a tower, simply because there are more options in that category, so my recommendations will focus on towers, but the sizes apply to both categories.

The size of a case is determined by the maximum motherboard size the case can comfortably accomodate. Naturally, this means you whould have chosen the parts described in parts 1 and 2 of this guide before making this decision.
●ATX full tower: can accomodate any consumer board, including eATX and all smaller sizes. These take up a lot of room, and will dwarf your monitor and challenge your TV. This size is excellent for water cooling, however, and has room for radiators, reservoirs and pumps that other sizes simply don't.
●ATX mid tower: A shorter version of the full tower, some can accomodate eATX, all can accomodate ATX or smaller. These are of reasonably large size, and most would still look out of place or at least grab the eye as part of a home theater. This is the smallest case that a water cooling setup could reasonably be expected to work in without modding the case.
●ATX mini tower: Barely fits an ATX board, and doesn't have room for many modern graphics cards. Not recommended for gamers, but good for a business. Manufacturers know this, and these cases are just about universally flimsy.
●Micro ATX mid tower: Can accomodate mATX and smaller, so ATX and eATX would be out of the question. There are few quality cases of this size, as the market tends to prefer the next size...
●Micro AXT mini tower: Can accomodate mATX and smaller, so ATX and eATX would be out of the question. I love this size, it would look just fine as part of a home theater, and the mATX boards are perfect for a focused gaming build.
●Mini ITX tower: mini ITX only. If you want something very tiny and very portable, this is the best you'll find for a PC.

It's my opinion that a case is something you want to stay with you for the foreseeable future. Cases are excellent computer parts in that they have very few electronic components, and an investment in a quality case can last you for the rest of your PC life if given enough thought. If, of course, you think you'll get a new case with each new system, that's irrelevant, but I recommend removing the case from the list of things you'll need to buy in the future and buying quality. As for the list above, a case I regretted buying in my more ignorant days will serve as a cautionary tale: the ultra-cheap Cooler Master 430 Elite.

Build quality: A large part of the cost of a case comes from how much metal was used to make it. Thicker metal in the construction makes for a sturdier case, and this is more important than it may seem. A thin piece of sheet metal holding up expensive electronics can begin to warp or buckle over time, and moving the system presents a fairly significant risk. It can be tempting to grab a cheap case, as in something costing $25-$30, but it's better to buy something of higher quality that will last. This is less of an issue with very small cases, however, especially if they are to be moved around a lot. Look for reviews to get an idea of the build quality of a case you're considering.

The CM 430 Elite is made of flimsy sheet metal, as hinted at by its price. For an ATX mid tower especially, this is not good enough.

Cable management: Look at holes highlighted below in the older version of the popular Cooler Master HAF:

The large hole on the bottom is meant for the bundle of cables coming out of the power supply mounted in the bottom of the case to be routed through behind that metal plate with all the holes in it, called the "motherboard tray". The other holes are there so that each cable can be poked through only where it needs to be plugged in. Take a look at the red cables in this build to see what that looks like. This process is very important for effective cooling of the system, not to mention good looks.

The CM 430 Elite has no cable management options at all, indiciative of its lousy quality as a case.

Thermal Design and acoustic design: These are tricky properties to nail down, but some simple rules of thumb will help:
●These two properties have an inverse relationship: if you have excellent thermal design, you had to sacrifice some acoustics and accept a louder system. If you have excellent acoustic design and a very quiet system, you had to sacrifice some cooling optimization to get it. It all comes down to which is more important to you.
●Good thermal design is about the number of fans pulling air in and pushing it out, as well as their relative positions (for example, I find side-mounted fans can disrupt air flow and decrease thermal performance overall). More and larger fans pointing in than out creates positive pressure (more air pumped in means higher pressure inside than immediately outside the case) which is not as thermally efficient, but does discourage dust from moving into the case, whereas more and larger fans pointing out than in leads to negative internal pressure, which is more thermally efficient, but also draws dust into the case.
●Good acoustic design is about having a case with few holes in it and acoustic foam lining the panels of the case, and it's also about selecting quiet fans, which will be discussed below.

This is an example of a case which emphasizes good thermal design. Notice that most faces of the case have open meshes. Also notice that there is room for 3 120 mm fans and one 140 mm fan pulling air into the case and two 140 mm fans and one 120 mm fan pushing air out. This case is optimized for negative pressure. It also has a top bezel (cover) in which an average sized radiator could be hidden, making this excellent for basic water cooling, as well.

This is an example of a case which emphasizes acoustics. Notice the lack of open meshes in favor of solid panels, and that these panels have acoustic foam lining them.

The CM 430 Elite has mediocre cooling and acoustics, with less room for fans and no acoustic optimizations at all (one of the top fans is actually positioned such that a fan mounted there would actually get in the way of a motherboard).

CPU cutouts and other matters of convenience: The CPU cutout is this thing:

That cutout is positioned right behind the CPU socket on most boards, and this allows easy access for the installation of backplates for after-market coolers ("after-market coolers" are CPU coolers bought separately from the CPU, and backplates are what they sound like: metal or plastic brackets placed on the back of the motherboard that provide screw threads for the cooler itself to be screwed into). A large cutout makes installation of these coolers easier, and they are an absolute pain without one.

Other matters of convenience include things like removable drive trays, tool-free mounting for drives, included fan controllers (I like these, not everyone does) and easily removable fan filters for easy cleaning.

The CM 430 Elite has a fairly small cutout, and none of the other convenient features mentioned.

Room for components: This is mainly about ensuring your graphics card will fit. Get the measurements of the card you're considering from the statistics available at any online retailer and compare those against the dimensions of the case you're considering. Many cases advertise the maximum dimensions for graphics cards.

The other two things in the list are self-explanatory.

Recommendations: Please keep in mind that these are cases I would buy, and that's actually a very small category. Part of this is aesthetics, so if you don't like more minimalistic designs as I do, this won't be of much use to you. If you want a cheaper option than any of those offered here, just think about the above factors and shop around.

●ATX Full tower: NZXT Phantom or Fractal Design Define XL. There are actually a lot or spectacular cases in this class, and these are two of my favorites. The Phantom (not to be confused with its little brother, the Phantom 410) is definitely optimized for airflow over silence (and it has beautiful interior lighting which you can adjust to basically any color). Fractal Design's Define series will be a recommendation throughout this guide: they are sleek, beautiful and optimized for silence, not to mention on the affordable side for the quality.
●ATX mid tower: NZXT Phantom 410 or Fractal Design R4. Yeah. I like these cases a lot.
●Micro-ATX mini tower: IN WIN Dragon Slayer or Silverstone Temjin TJ08B-E. I really like the IN WIN DS, I think it's just a great value, unique looking without being overdone and allows enough options for cooling that a silent system isn't impossible. The Temjin series from Silverstone boasts some of the smartest, most efficient design in computer cases, but comes at a premium.

Let's talk about liquid and air. Liquid cooling is expensive, and most people aren't going to want to bother with it. The advantages of liquid cooling are as follows:
●Liquid cooling can bring the idle and load temperatures of the components in a system way down, if the cooling loop has high radiator density. This means that most of the "all-in-one" CPU coolers like the Corsair H80 or the Antec Khüler H2O won't actually perform much better than an aftermarket (meaning separately purchased from the CPU and made by a company other than AMD or Intel) air cooler.
●Liquid cooling is a good investment in extremely humid climates as the humidity in the air can damage computer hardware over time.
●Liquid cooling helps heep dust away from components.
●Liquid cooling looks super amazing like seriously wow.
So, I'll say it straight: unless you're an enthusiast or just loaded, don't bother with liquid cooling, even the all-in-one CPU coolers.

So what about the other options? There are two things to think about: cooling your CPU and cooling the rest of your system.

First, a couple of general principles: heat is transferred in three ways:
1) Convection, which is the motion of heated molecules of some fluid substance (air or liquid, for example); when these molecules hit something hotter than themselves, they absorb heat from that something, and transfer their heat when carried to something colder. This is the kind of heat transfer fans or pumps help with.
2) Conduction, which is the propagation of heat energy through a medium as the molecules of that medium knock each other around. This is what radiators and heatsinks rely on.
3) Radiation, which is when the heat is radiated as light. This takes a while, and isn't really relevant to this topic.

Cooling starts at metal to metal contact, typically to "heat pipes" which conduct heat to an array of metal "fins" on a heatsink or to a metal fin array in a waterblock (liquid cooling thing, don't worry about it). The heat will be more efficiently conducted across a metal piece with a high surface area to volume ratio. More fins in a smaller volume makes for better cooling assuming that the density is not too high to move air through the fins.

That brings us to the next concept: air or liquid needs to convect the heat away from the heatsink/radiator. Moving air through a radiator is not about how much air a fan can move, but about the pressure of the air around the fins. There's a concept called "static pressure" you'll hear a lot about, but you don't need to know what that means. Any after market cooler will come with fans appropriate for the cooler. Just know this: the fan on the left is optimized for static pressure, the fan on the right is optimized for airflow:

The wide blades with small gaps indicate that the fan is good for static pressure. Good to know, but you shouldn't actually have to think about this.

Cooling your CPU: Many, but not all, CPUs will come packaged with a fan and a heatsink. This is almost always garbage, and an after market cooler will always be an improvement in temperatures and reliability. On the left is a typical Intel heatsink, and on the right is a fairly cheap after market cooler:

Notice that the after market cooler has far more fins in the heatsink. This means far better cooling because physics. I would recommend an after market cooler to pretty much anyone who can afford one. Make sure your case has enough room for whatever you choose, and make sure it's for the right CPU socket. Here are some good ones:
Enermax ETS-T40-TB
Silverstone NT06-Pro
Silverstone Ar02
Arctic Freezer Xtreme
●All-in-ones like the Corsair H80i will perform about the same or not perform better enough to justify the added cost.

Cooling the rest of your system: This is about the fans you install in your case. Fan size is measured from one edge to another, rather than from one corner to the other, in millimeters (mm). Most cases will have mounting options for 120mm or 140mm fans. Your case will likely come with several fans and some extra room for more fans should you wish to use it. Besides the looks and the size, there are primarily three statistics to consider when looking at fans:
1) Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM): higher numbers mean higher airflow.
2) dBA (decibels): Below about 25 dBA is essentially inaudible.
3) Static pressure: This isn't usually reported, just look above to see what you should look for.

There is a trade-off between CFM and the other two stats. Quiet fans are quiet in part because they move less air, and optimizing for airflow means not optimizing for static pressure. More airflow is good for open environments like the inside of your case, high static pressure is good for a fan mounted to a heatsink/radiator.

If you buy a good case and manage your cables well, quiet fans should be sufficient to cool your system, and I recommend prioritizing silence over CFM. Here are some good fans to consider:
Silverstone AP series
Corsair AF series quiet edition
Noctua fans (these are expensive and ugly, but widely considered the highest quality fans out there, for good reason)
Noiseblocker black

That should do it for the longer posts in this series. The next should be coming later this week.

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4:47 PM on 05.24.2013  

Building a PC 2: Bones and Cartilage

With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC. This is part 2 in a series that aims to give the neophyte all of the most important, basic pieces of knowledge when choosing from the many options in the world of computer hardware, skipping over unnecessary details

The titles of each section below will become clickable links as the sections are completed.

1) Heart and Soul
CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.

2) Bones and Cartilage
Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.

3) Flesh and blood
Case - Make it last.
Cooling - Liquid or Gas?

4) Memories~
Storage - SSD, HDD or both?
Optical drive - Nah.

5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans
Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter

6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.

7) Other Sundry
Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency

Bones and Cartilage
These two components, the motherboard and the power supply, will play a significant role in the stability, reliability and longevity of your build. Any old motherboard or power supply will "work", in the same sense that any old nail will hold together two pieces of wood, but just as a galvanized nail will keep those pieces of wood in place more reliably and for a longer stretch of time, a quality motherboard and power supply will make your not insignificant investment last. As such, I advise planning to spend a decent amount on these components: do not make compromises or cut corners you don't absolutely have to. These components will be the foundation of your build, and their quality directly impacts the operation and integrity of every other component. These are components you want to last as long as is possible!

Motherboards are printed circuit boards (PCBs, platters of silicon with circuits etched into them) that connect, control and deliver power to the rest of the parts in the system.

This is a long section. If you don't want to deal with all of the different options available, just follow these recommended steps:
1) Search the categories of an online retailer like for the correct socket for your chosen CPU.
2) If you have an Intel CPU, get a Zxx board, preferably from ASUS, MSI or Intel (avoid Biostar). If the Zxx boards  like Z77 or Z75 are too expensive, go for an Hxx board. For AMD, you don't have to worry about a choice like that, just get the best board you can.
3)Get an ATX sized board. You may also want to consider an mATX sized board.
4)Buy the best you can afford.
Otherwise, read on.

The motherboard you choose will be determined by four things:

Your CPU: Different CPUs require different "sockets", the slot on the motherboard into which the CPU is inserted; this is the first thing you need to consider. Any decent online retailer allows for a search to be narrowed by socket type. Sockets for modern intel CPUs have names like LGA 1155 and LGA 2011. Sockets for AMD CPUs have names like AM3 and AM3+. After selecting your CPU, check its specs and use that as a starting point to choose a motherboard.

My recommendation will boil down to this: find a board that has the right socket for your CPU and get the one with the highest ratings and a standard 3 year or longer warranty. Replacing a motherboard is a pain, and a fault in a motherboard could damage other components: you want to know that the company has confidence in its product.

If you want more detail, read on.

The chipset: I know I have been saying you don't need to know what this means, and you really don't: Intel has relatively straightforward naming conventions for the "quality" of a chipset, and by "quality", I mean primarily number of features, and AMD just has their one chipset.

The chipset version is the first thing you will see after the name a given company gives a particular line of boards. Intel uses the letters B, Q, H, Z and X (there are others for their mobile chips, but ignore those) followed by a two number code. Do not worry about the 2 number code, just search by the socket needed for your CPU and look for the higher number (e.g. if you see Z75 and Z77, get Z77).

It's not that you need the features of the higher numbered chipset, it's that board manufacturers tend to use the higher numbered chipsets on their higher quality boards. This is a rule of thumb to remember: even if you don't need whatever features are available on the "higher grade" chipset, board manufacturers have a habit of only using higher grade chipsets on their higher quality boards.

●B is their budget chipset class (example: the ASUS P8B75-V). This doesn't necessarily mean the board is cheap, but it usually does, and this chipset lacks many performance enhancing features present in others. However, many, if not most of these features are optional and not straightforward to implement, anyway. The problem with this chipset is only that it is usually added to budget boards with short warranties and little in the way of binning (a process by which the manufactured units are tested and separated into highest quality and not-highest quality); binning is an important process that helps ensure you'll be getting a reliable board. It's not necessary, but less testing on budget boards means they are more of a gamble. That doesn't mean they're bad by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can afford better, you should get better. This chipset only accomodates 2 RAM modules and has an expansion slot for the now obsolete PCI standard (since replaced by PCI express).
●Q has features meant for businesses. It has features you don't need. Do not get a board with a Q chipset.
●H is their "mainstream", middle-of-the-road chipset class (example: ASRock H77M). Most of what I said about the B series applies here, except that it has only the modern PCI express slots. If you can afford better, get better, but there are quality boards with this chipset.
●Z is their "performance" chipset class (example: the MSI Z77A-GD65). This is the class that will be found on the flagship products offered by a given company, their highest quality boards that have, in the case of the best brands out there, undergone an extensive testing and binning process. The cost of this process is, of course, passed onto the customer, but this sort of testing is worth the money, in my opinion.
●X is their chipset class that accomodates the LGA 2011 socket, which fits CPUs that can manage 2 quad-channels of memory (i.e. 8 RAM modules for up to 64 GB of RAM). You will not need this for gaming, do not get an X board or a CPU that needs one.

In summary: Your first choice should be a Z board, followed by H and then B if you can't afford a board with a Z chipset.

AMD is, again, more merciful than Intel in their naming conventions. There's one chipset, it is called the AMD chipset. So... Yeah. Get that one. Okay, some use a chipset developed by Nvidia, but the chipset isn't a big concern if you went with an AMD CPU.

The size: After all that, your main concern should be choosing a motherboard appropriate for the type of use the system will see. You'll want to think about where the system will be (will it be hooked up to a TV or a monitor?) and what it will be used for (will you be using the system for computationally intensive work like 3D modelling or CAD, as well?). These concerns will first be addressed by choosing the size of the board. The size is mainly about expansion slot capacity and power delivery capability. Expansion slots are the things you'll be plugging graphics cards and sound cards into, so you need to make sure you have room for what you want to plug in. Power delivery options, if they exist, are there for enthusiasts with big, expensive tech, so don't worry about those.

Motherboards come in the following standard sizes for consumer-grade components:
●ATX: This is the Mario, the standard size that has enough room for whatever the average gamer will need to plug in. ATX boards can typically accommodate at least dual graphics cards and it has a few more expansion slots besides. Many people don't even need this much.

●microATX: I like this size. These boards have just as many expansion slots as you're likely to need and allow you the option of a smaller case.

●mini-ITX: if you want to make a very compact system, this is the board size for you. The disadvantages are that there is only one expansion slot, which will probably be used by your graphics card, and that there's less room for power delivery components (unless you grab this sexy little number from ASUS, which has an added power delivery PCB). The advantage is, of course, that you get to have a smaller case and an extremely compact system.

●Extended ATX: Like ATX, but a bit wider to allow for a bit more circuitry to provide better power delivery and other features. This is where you'll find the premium boards targeted at gamers and enthusiasts. You won't have a reason to bother with these unless you're already one foot in the rabbit hole and want to mess around with the hardware and become an enthusiast yourself. If you decide to get one of this size, be prepared to get a huge, expensive case, as well.

●Others: there are others; you won't want to consider any of them.

The features: Board manufacturers offer myriad features on their boards of varying degrees of usefulness. Here are a few that you may want to look for:
●UEFI BIOS with GUI: Don't worry about what those letters mean, just look for UEFI. This will make setting the system up after building easier.
●On board networking: Most decent boards these days come with a LAN (Ethernet) port. The more expensive ones come with integrated wireless, as do some cheaper boards, and that's a nice touch if you don't already have a USB wireless adapter.
●Quality on board sound: pretty much every board includes an integrated sound chip, but if sound quality is important to you, it can be good to get a board with something like a SupremeFX chip instead of the standard Realtek.

Here are some features you don't necessarily need:
●PCIe 3.0: there have been 3 generations of the technology used in the expansion ports, PCIe. The most recent one is the third generation. Many graphics cards advertise PCIe 3.0 compatability, but whether this makes a tangible difference to your experience is suspect. Don't worry if your board only comes with previous generation PCIe.
●Overclocking features: the specific nature of features advertised for overclocking varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but these should not sell you on a board. These are purely for enthusiasts, and most gamers will never find a good reason to use them.

Finally, some recommendations:
My favorite brands are:
pretty much in that order. ASUS and MSI I have used myself, and they've yet to disappoint, and I've worked with friend's computers using ASRock and Gigabyte. Intel just has a good reputation, but their offerings are always quite expensive.

Brands you should avoid for certain:
Seriously. Stay away from Biostar. They're extremely cheap for a reason. Some people have been more lucky with them than I have been, but I just don't think it's worth the risk.

As for specific boards, these product lines are great:
●ASUS's Sabertooth line. These boards undergo an intensive binning process, and they stand behind that with an unheard of 5 year warranty. My board is a Sabertooth board, and I love it. Good temperatures, sturdy, and with all of the benefits that come with a high-end ASUS board.
●ASUS's RoG line. These boards are not binned in the same way the Sabertooth line is: unlike Sabertooth, there are board of various quality and price. 3 year warranty.
●MSI's Gaming line. These boards come with many great features and good quality. 3 year warranty.

Power Supply (PSU)
There are two rules of thumb when shopping for a power supply:
1) Only get the wattage you need.
2) Get a PSU that has most of its power on the +12 V rail(s).

I'll walk you through each of these rules.

Wattage: It's common for people to buy power supplies that either provide too much or too little power to their systems. If you buy a power supply that provides too little power, you'll see all kinds of crazy problems crop up, and possibly do serious damage to components. If you buy a power supply that provides way more than necessary, you're wasting electricity and you'll face higher electric bills than you really need to (and produce unnecessary heat); more importantly, you'll have bought a more expensive power supply than you actually needed.

This site allows you to calculate a good estimate of the power your system will need, and it's a good place to start. I like to assume a worst case scenario and select the 100% load options. Odds are, you'll see a number between 550 W and 650 W, and indeed, this will be plenty for most people. If you want to be overly cautious, you can add another 50 W to the number you get from that calculator and buy a PSU with approximately that wattage. Make sure to look up some reviews for the PSU you end up considering on sites like Hardware Secrets.

The 12 V rail: You will hear a lot about how you need to have a single +12 V rail and how most of your power should output to the +12 V rail(s). The former has a kernel of truth to it, but isn't really necessary, and the latter is certainly true. I'm not going to explain why, but I'll give you an idea of what to look for.

On the latter issue: look at this PSU and compare it against this one. The first one shows that the 3.3 V and 5 V rails combined can only provide 125 W of the 750 W the power supply can put out, or about 17%, while the 12 V rail can provide almost all of that 750 W, if needed. The second PSU can't even provide 50% of its total output to the 12 V rail (which that company tried to hide by reporting only the sum of all three and the sum of the 3.3V and 5.5V). The vast majority of the components in your system need the 12 V rail for reasons, so the first power supply is far superior on that basis alone.

On the single +12 V rail issue: This PSU has a single 12 V rail. This PSU has 3. I won't explain what that means here, just know this: it's okay to buy a modern PSU with multiple 12 V rails, but I would still choose one with a single 12 V rail first, all other things being equal. Don't worry about it, though, the people making a big deal out of it are ignoring advances in power delivery systems on motherboards and pretending overcurrent protection is as primitive as it used to be, it used to be a bigger deal than it is now.

80 Plus certification: A little while back, the efficiency of power supplies started to become a big deal. A program was instigated by some little known company to assess the efficiency of PSUs and to provide (for a fee) certification to those CPUs that achieve power efficiency at 50% system load of 80% or higher.

Allow me to explain further. When the PSU is providing ~50% of the power it can, it is about at it's most efficient operating capacity, and if the PSU is 80 Plus certified, then you know that at least 80% of the power produced is usable and not lost as heat, and higher certifications show efficiencies at 50% load of up to 92% in the case of the "platinum" certification. Power lost as heat means paying for electricity that the computer draws from the wall, but doesn't actually use. Obviously, it's in your best interests to minimize this problem, and 80 Plus certification purportedly helps you to do that.

There are five ranks of 80 Plus certification, with 80 Plus Platinum being the highest (not shown here).

Butand as you can see, it's a big "but"—while 80 Plus certification cannot be said to be entirely meaningless, it does have a whole lot of marketing nonsense behind it. The test conditions are unrealistic from the start, and there's no accountability to the company that submits a PSU to (and pays for) a certification trial to send a representative sample of the product in question, so they can easily test a prototype themselves to get the results they want before submitting their best sample. Furthermore, the distinction between the different "levels" of 80 Plus certification is pure marketing, and often splitting hairs. It's not a bad idea to seek out some kind of certification, but you really don't need to go for the platinum or gold. The difference is minimal between, for example, Silver and Gold, if it's really there at all, and is likely to be more about dazzling you than delivering a superior product. If you're seeking something with this certification, get something with 80 Plus or 80 Plus Bronze. Any good power supply is at least that good, and that's more than good enough.

●Cooler Master


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6:00 PM on 05.22.2013  

The Basics of Building a PC

Update (May 23, 2013): News about GTX 780 dropping today adds an attractive new option for graphics cards. Info about graphics card benchmarks also added.

With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC, and that those people may feel lost. I'm interested in providing advice for anyone who fits that description: get someone to do it for you if you don't want to deal with building your own. There are many, many ways to get someone else to build a solid system for you, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing so. Sure, it's more expensive than building your own rig, but this is a service-sector economy: you pay for convenience.

A few places that will build systems for you:
●A friend of yours, if you buy the parts (best option).
●Newegg, TigerDirect, NCIX and similar online retailers in and out of North America.
●Small, specialty computer companies like Singularity Computers.
●Boutique PC builders like Falcon Northwest or Maingear (if you have more money than sense).

If you are interested in building a PC yourself but don't know where to start, this guide should help. My goal here is to help new PC builders understand what they should be looking for with each component, to skip past all of the detailed information about niggling little differences between this or that CPU or this or that graphics card and focus on only what choices matter most when choosing how to spend your money.

This guide will assume that this system will serve purposes other than gaming. After all, if you can use it for other things, you probably will at some point. As such, I recommend opening yourself to a larger expenditure than you've been accustomed to with past consoles. If you choose your parts carefully and don't cut corners you shouldn't cut, the system you build should last for a very long time. I aim to be as concise as possible while accomplishing all of the goals above (and if I fail, you should find me and beat me up). I hope to give you a basic understanding of what these parts do, and what specs to look for when comparing different candidates for a particular component.

Each post will cover one of these sections, which are presented in the order in which the parts should be selected. This post will include the first section.

1) Heart and Soul
CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.

2) Bones and Cartilage
Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.

3) Flesh and blood
Case - Make it last.
Cooling - Liquid or Gas?

4) Memories~
Storage - SSD, HDD or both?
Optical drive - Nah.

5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans
Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter

6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.

7) Other Sundry
Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency

For reference, here's my system. It's intended for much more than games, and I run programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, InDesign, QuarkXpress, 3DS Max and so on all at once, so the motherboard I chose, the amount of RAM I have and such are all things that you won't need unless you do the same sorts of things.

-Intel core i7 3820 CPU, stable 4.4 GHz overclock
-AMD Radeon HD 7870 (GHz ed.)
-32 GB RAM, 1600 MHz (9, 9, 9, 24)
-ASUS Sabertooth X79
-Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 800W PSU (quite a bit more than I need, actually)
-NZXT Phantom 410 Midtower case
-Samsung 840 Pro 256 GB SSD
-2 TB HDD @7200 RPM

Heart and Soul
These components will be the deciding factors in what choices are even available to you when looking at the other components in the system. The CPU will determine what motherboard you get: the motherboard has a "socket" into which the CPU is placed, and different CPUs require different sockets (you'll also hear about a "chipset" like Z77 or X79, but you don't really need to know what that means). The type and number of GPUs you get will require a minimum size for the motherboard: the more graphics and other expansion cards you intend on having, the more careful you'll need to be to ensure the board is big enough to accommodate all of them. Finally, the amount of RAM you can use is limited by how much ram the CPU can control, thus the motherboard will only have enough slots for the maximum amount of RAM; however, unless you're like me and do a lot of design work on your computer, this is unlikely to be an issue.

The CPU (Central Processing Unit) coordinates with storage devices, graphics cards and RAM through complicated bundles of circuitry on the motherboard you don't need to worry about. When a program is run, the CPU executes the necessary computations to carry out the program's function. It's important, you already knew that, that's all you need to know, and you can look elsewhere for details on how they work.

There is one thing I will have to explain first, though: what does "base clock" mean? Without going into detail, the base clock is the frequency of a repeating on/off voltage that provides an absolute timescale the CPU uses to time operations within a program relative to each other, which is a fundamental part of how computing works. Faster clock speeds mean faster computation, and therefore faster program execution, but it also generally means more heat. The number you see advertised with the units "GHz" (something like 2.80 or 3.40) represents the base clock, and when people talk about overclocking, they're talking about increasing the clock speed above the factory set clock speed.

Begin choosing parts for your system by selecting a CPU. Here are the decisions you'll have to make:

Intel or AMD? Honestly, they're both fine options, and odds are either choice will work just fine for gaming. There have been some reports that certain games like Crysis 3 or Farcry 3 run better on one or the other, but for most games this isn't much of an issue if you have a modern CPU. Pick whichever you prefer, based on price or what have you. I will say that Intel does have some nice low power consumption options, and I generally like Intel chips (though my reasons are unrelated to gaming), but read below for more detail on these two choices.

If you go with Intel: First of all, you may wish to wait until next month to do anything, as Intel's new 'Haswell' chips will be released, and these promise much better energy efficiency and slightly better performance than current CPUs. The associated Z87 chipset (don't worry about what that means, doesn't matter right now) also comes with some advantages.

i3, i5 or i7? i3 processors are dual-core with hyperthreading, i5 are quad-core without (usually) hyperthreading, i7 are quad- to hexa-core with hyperthreading. More cores (separate CPUs within the CPU) mean more efficient (therefore faster) computation if utilized fully by a given program.

This paragraph is extra detail that you can skip unless you would like to know more about the differences between these processor lines. What Intel calls "hyperthreading" is their implementation of simultaneous multithreading, which is a way to run several simple programmed instructions ("threads") within a larger set of programmed instructions simultaneously. Put simply: hyperthreading allows for a program to run several instructions at the same time given there are cores available to do so, which makes some programs run noticeably smoother and faster (Windows interprets this as a 4 core processor with hyperthreading having 4 cores and 4 virtual cores). A CPU with more cores is better at hyperthreading than a CPU with fewer cores, and with only 2 cores as with the i3, the hyperthreading capability usually won't make much of a difference. The i3's also don't have the dynamic overclocking of the other two, further limiting their relative performance.

Importantly, hyperthreading won't have much of an effect with most games at the time of writing. This makes the i5 series very attractive for a system meant primarily for gaming. If you also intend to stream or capture and render gameplay footage, the hyperthreading capability of the i7 series might help you, but certainly isn't necessary. For most people, the choice will be an i5 processor (note: these are all from the 3rd generation of processors; the new generation due in a couple of weeks will bring with it some attractive advantages, which I will write about then if there's any interest).

Which line of processors? 3870? 2820? X? K? S? T? What the hell do these numbers and letters mean? Intel's naming conventions are horrible, and they do an equally horrible job informing people about what those letters after the numbers mean. The numbers are simple enough: look at the first number of the 4. That number indicates the generation, and higher is generally better. For example, my processor--a 3820--is of the 3rd generation, and the 4th generation out in June will have numbers starting with 4. The other three numbers are just a SKU, and you'll have to go to intel's website to tell the difference using this handy comparison tool. As for the letters:

●X means EXTREME! These are the top-of-the-line of the 3rd generation. These have 6 cores and a high base clock with very good "turboboost" capabilities and other nonsense that doesn't matter for pure gaming. These are produced assuming you'll be using a dedicated graphics card and do not have integrated graphics. Intel press copy calls it "the perfect engine for hardcore gaming", but don't fall for that malarkey.

●S and T are both low power consumption options, with T being the lower of the two and also optimized for low operating temperatures. If your power bills are a concern for you, grab a T processor, just know that T's have lower base clocks and aren't great overclockers, but honestly, overclocking won't be relevant for most people.

●K means "unlocked multiplier". The multiplier is an integer value that multiplies the base clock for the CPU alone. See, if you try to overclock by simply adjusting the base clock, like I had to do with mine, you'll be affecting the clock for the RAM as well and make managing the voltages a chore. With an unlocked multiplier, a basic overclock is as easy as adjusting that one number (the overclock I have on mine, for example, would be easy). Many people seem to think that an unlocked multiplier is necessary for overclocking. It is not. An unlocked multiplier makes overclocking easier. My recommendation is to simply go for a cheaper option and either don't bother with overclocking or plan on doing it by the old method of adjusting, stress testing, and adjusting again.

So, in summary: get either a 3xxx or a 4xxx and decide whether you care more about power consumption, overclocking, or price.

If you go with AMD: AMD is more merciful than Intel with their naming conventions. A-series means integrated graphics and low power, and these may be comparable to the T series from Intel, and for an integrated graphics option these chips have a good reputation. The FX series is the thing to buy if you're also buying a graphics card. Each processor in this series is given 4 numbers. The first number indicates the number of cores in the CPU: 4, 6 or 8. The second number indicates the architecture generation. There are currently three generations within this series, and the latest generation is what you'll be looking for. For example, an FX 4170 is a quad-core processor with first generation architecture, and an FX 8350 has 8 cores and third generation architecture. All of these processors come with an unlocked multiplier by default.

The only thing to watch out for is that, while there is simultaneous multithreading on AMD CPUs, the implementation leaves something to be desired. These and a few other technical details lead to a common "Intel > AMD" refrain (more cores does not mean better CPU). While I generally agree with this from a not-just-gamer standpoint, I also think that the difference is not as important as your budget. Don't be afraid to buy an AMD chip if it makes a big enough difference to the bottom line or that some sources say gives better performance in your favorite game. There is a possibility that the next generation of consoles, with MS and Sony relying on AMD chips, will lead to AMD being preferable for gaming, but this remains to be seen.

Anyway, here's a simple flow chart:

Get to whichever end suits you most and pick from the options based on what you're willing to pay. Also, I realize this is a very simplistic look at AMD. You should also consider their A series for a budget build without a dedicated graphics card.

Graphics Card
Choosing a graphics card can be as overwhelming as choosing a CPU. The naming conventions are almost as bad, and the number of choices is made more maddening by all this talk of multi-GPU configurations. Fortunately, there are some rules of thumb here to make everything easier:

●Higher numbers mean better performance in Nvidia's modern GTX line and AMD's modern Radeon HD line, so it's generally best to choose based on what you're willing to pay.
●Multiple card configurations, in which more than one card is used and the cards are linked in "SLI" (Nvidia) or "CrossFireX" (AMD) which amounts to connecting them with an included adapter, can be a pain in the ass to configure and don't work very well with some games, not to mention most games don't really need that much horsepower to run at fairly high settings. I recommend trying to get the best single card you can afford and leaving it at that.
●VRAM is most important for high resolutions. 1 or 2 GB of VRAM is plenty unless you are planning to play at extremely high resolutions such as on a television or with multiple monitors.

There are four "tiers" of pricing, as I see it: cheap (<$100), low-end though not bad (~$100-$150), good for pretty much anything (~$250-$400) and "I'm rolling in cash so why not" (~$1000)--this is ignoring cards for professionals and only looking at cards marketed to gamers. My advice: pick one of those tiers and roll with either AMD or Nvidia:

●A decent card in category 1, cheap, is the Radeon HD 6670.
●Good cards category 2 are the GTX 660Ti and the Radeon HD 7770.
●Great cards in category 3 are the Radeon HD 7870 and the GTX 670.
●An expensive card in category 4 is the GTX Titan.

For reference, I use a Radeon HD 7870, and it's able to play Bioshock Infinite with smooth framerates at max settings and The Witcher 2 at high settings with smooth framerates (don't have numbers off the top of my head, but it felt like 60ish FPS). A monster like the Titan or the ASUS Ares II will only be worth it if you only play games because pretty graphics.

This should help if you're still unsure.

EDIT: Taterchimp was kind to remind me of the large amount of searchable benchmarking information available online, and that this is important information to consider in choosing a card for your system. Benchmarks, for those who don't know, are stress tests for hardware to determine how much a given piece of hardware can take before it stops working properly and comparing those stats to the results of other hardware in the same category. This term predates computing by a long time, and it means pretty much the same thing as it does in other contexts in which you may have encountered the term.

The procedure for choosing a graphics card has two steps:
1) Choose a price range within your means.
2) Make a list of cards in that category with a price you like and compare benchmarks by searching for benchmarks on the internet. This site contains a bunch of comparison charts, as does the article linked previously.

EDIT2: And of course, just today the press embargo on the brand spankin' new GTX 700 series is lifted. These will hit the market very soon, with the GTX 780 already available for purchase. It's like the Titan, but with half as much RAM.

For RAM, 8 GB will be enough for most people. RAM isn't all about capacity, though. What makes some RAM worth more than some other RAM is what guaranteed frequency (meaning the frequency it's guaranteed to operate at stably) it will run at. This is much like the clock speed of the processor: higher number is better number. The guaranteed frequency will be a stat like 1333 MHz or 1600 MHz. 1600 MHz will be just fine for most people. There are also the latencies to think about, and these will be reported usually as 4 numbers like this: 9, 9, 9, 24. The lower these numbers are, the better. I won't explain what that means here, because it doesn't really matter, just know that a lot of premium RAM modules have higher frequencies and latencies, but the latencies need to be compared against the frequency; in other words, you can't just directly compare the latencies of a 1600 MHz RAM kit to those of a 2400 MHz RAM kit.

To select the RAM that's right for you, go to your online retailer of choice and search desktop memory by the frequency first, then compare the latencies of the kits you see with the same frequency. You may also see "DDR", "DDR2" and "DDR3". Choose DDR3 and avoid anything else.

If you don't want to think about all of this: get an 8 GB kit of DDR3 1600 MHz with the lowest latencies you can find.


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11:04 AM on 04.27.2013  

Bioshock Infinite and its frustrating imperfections

Before you say anything: don't worry. It's still okay to be talking about Bioshock: Infinite. Spoilers ahoy!

Pretty as a painting.

Bioshock has never been a series I find particularly impressive from a gameplay perspective. The original was good, I enjoyed it, but it left no lasting impression on me save for the significant impression left by the cogency of its aesthetic. Bioshock infinite has also not particularly impressed me, save for the significant impression left by the cogency of its aesthetic. There was a much greater sense of disappointment concurrent with that impression, unfortunately: the game design this time around featured some of the best ideas the FPS genre has ever seen, but the power of these ideas is dulled by an imperfect execution.

The positive things I have to say have been said myriad times as it is. The game is one of the most beautiful things I have laid eyes on. It is a painting in motion. The engine was created by both programmers and artists, with an understanding of color theory that suggests intimate familiarity with color and composition. I paint a bit on the side for money on occasion, I have been painting since childhood, and here a game engine creates the vibrancy and depth only attainable through bold color choices that every novice painter is afraid to make.

These color choices are scary for art directors of most games, too. They're scary because they are counter-intuitive. The temptation when painting something you've conceptualized as blue is to only use blue, which is part of the reason for the flat look of novice artwork. Artists of intermediate skill will eventually begin thinking of multiple light sources, typically adding a "backlight" to accentuate the form of a subject and provide it with more depth. This is common in earlier comic book art. When an artist truly becomes whimsical in his or her color choices, that artist has truly learned to let the paint surprise them, and most of the technique in art comes from learning how to make your media do things for you. Here is a painting by an old master, Jan Both.

The walls of the buildings in this piece are plastered, and as such have a yellow tint to them. This much is clear, but a closer look reveals that most of the walls are painted in red, blue and most prominently a pale green. To a novice, this seems a bizarre choice, but it clearly works in favor of the composition and color of the piece. it's the barely visible highlights at the very tips of the walls that imply this yellow color, and indeed it's the most illuminated parts of an object that inform what color we perceive it to be. The shadows, however, include splotches of a vibrant red among the pale greens. These sorts of choices terrify the novice because they just don't make sense, but they are critical to the visual interest of an image.

Now look at this wall.

What color is that wall? The one in the midground, the building in the back is obviously yellow. The wall has vibrant hues of orange, blue and pink, but this wall is made of a whiteish stone. So why the orange and blue and pink? Our brains interpret color by suggestion, not necessarily by the color that is actually there. For example, an experienced painter knows that a gradient of color can be seen by the viewer where there is actually one solid color if the solid color is surrounded by a dark color on one side and a bright color on the other. Hell, anyone who has seen a collection of optical illusions knows this:

Squares A and B are the same color, doncahano.

Knowing this is not enough, though. A typical painter spends countless hours trying to master color well enough to exploit the brain's tendency to see things that aren't really there, to project information onto a scene, and the artistic team at Irrational Games has nailed it within a game. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous game and they deserve all of the accolades ever for this achievement.

Unfortunately, Booker DeWitt is an unforgivable moron, and so is his stupid daughter.


One of the best parts of the gameplay in Bioshock Infinite, in my opinion, is the skyline mechahnic. Many have written that it felt superfluous, but for me, it quickly became essential to survival. I played my first (and currently only) time on the hard difficulty setting, and mobility meant the difference between survival and Booker soup. In many cases, the ability to jump in an out of a hot zone barely spared me the frustration of death, and I can only imagine that the developers hadn't really used it very much themselves.

When Booker runs out of ammo, he automatically reloads. This is a standard feature in the modern FPS, but when Booker is reloading, Booker does not jump onto a skyline or freight hook, so Booker gets murdered while hopping a few inches into the air over and over again.

When ElizabAnna tries to predict where Booker is going in that slightly off-putting way, waiting for her to move out of the way gives away Booker's position, robbing the dumbass of the chance for a sneak attack.

Picking up things, activating things and opening tears are all actions mapped to the same button. This is usually not a problem. Sure, having to tap a button rather than hold it for a while would make the more situational tears like oil puddles or freight hooks more attractive from a tactical perspective, but the context-sensitive approach doesn't become blindingly infuriating until that same button also calls Songbird in the lazy, endless-wave-of-enemies finale. Booker begs Songbird to attack the damn barge, but the ground is littered with weapons from the endless wave of enemies so Booker forgets how am be done use words good and instead picks up a machine gun. On hard difficulty, this is a time critical issue.

Ultimately, I looked back on my time with Bioshock Infinite as a generally positive experience marred by intense frustration. I didn't mind the ghost fights, they were challenging and intense. I didn't find most of the vigors useless, I used all of them with a preference for shock jockey, bucking bronco and charge by the end. The guns were by no means Half-Life-2-shotgun satisfying, but the hand cannon and its friend the volley gun gave me the kind of firepower I was looking for. The story was not entirely novel, and it was full of the sciencey-wiencey misunderstandings of physics that make me cringe, but it had plenty of twists that even managed to catch me off guard. I'd change nothing but the game mechanics, and the changes would be trivial, too.

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6:24 AM on 04.14.2013  

Princess Zelda is a Total Badass

In the stealth game--your "Thief", your "Mark of the Ninja", your "Deus Ex: Human Revolution"--the ultimate challenge comes in the form of ghosting. As the name implies, the challenge to the player is to successfully accomplish the goals of the game without once interacting directly with an enemy. They can be distracted with noises and the like, but a cosh to the back of the head or a sleeper hold are right out. In the original Thief games, the highest difficulty setting, expert, included the restriction that the player may not kill anyone, with the quip "You're a thief, not a murderer." To accomplish one's goals against a hostile enemy without their ever knowing about it is an absolute expression of peerless skill, certainly skill far surpassing that of the enemy. Nothing is quite as badass as being able to end an opponent, but choosing not to. Princess Zelda would play Thief on expert, and she'd ghost that shit.

In "The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time", Princess Zelda is the owner of the Triforce of wisdom, as usual. Link gets courage, and tackles his problems head on, often cutting said problems' stomachs open. Ganon gets power, and so takes what he wants. Zelda, however, can undermine them both with foresight and sagacity alone. When kidnapped in the original game by Ganondorf, Zelda had the wherewithal to know that Link could not face him as he was. Her thoughts were not of her own safety, but of the far future and a salvation that Link would deliver in the blink of an eye from his perspective, but that would not come for about a decade for her. Zelda saw how everything would play out ahead of time, and without laying a hand on her aggressors, she did everything she needed to do to ensure that events passed just enough in her and Link's favor.

While "The Hero of Time" slept, Zelda managed to escape from her captor. She adopted an alter-ego, Sheik. As Sheik, she employed considerable guile to set events in motion for Link's return, and when he did return, and fought courageously through hordes of dangerous creatures, Zelda was already there, waiting for him.

How does she do that?

Princess Zelda is truly the greatest leader the Hylians could ask for. She puts herself after the needs of her people, she puts herself in mortal danger to secure their future, and she does it with more aplomb than most anyone as young as she is could manage. She is level-headed and prescient when Link is lost, and when her father is giving their kingdom up to a power-mad psychopath, she can see what her father does not, and already senses what is coming.

In "Wind Waker", as pirate captain Tetra, Zelda leads a crew in an equally non-violent manner, preferring subterfuge wherever possible. She's a charismatic leader with the respect of those that follow her, but when she discovers her true identity, remains isolated in the sunken kingdom of Hyrule. It is often said that she becomes the weak damsel awaiting the brave knight at this point, but her remaining in Hyrule was a choice, she became convinced that it was the wisest choice despite her wish to roam freely. Already she had been found out by Ganondorf, and already she'd seen he couldn't be faced at that moment. She chose to wait it out because she foresaw the consequences.

When finally Zelda does employ violence as a means to accomplish her goals, it becomes clear that the Triforce does not define the people it has chosen. Throughout his adventure, Link shows great wisdom in his use of diplomacy to gain allies to rely on and in being sly enough to fool his enemies as much as he bloodies them, and the power he obtains is formidable. Ganondorf exploits his charisma before force and prefers to manipulate instead of break whenever possible. As for Zelda, her courage and her power are employed with precision and grace. Her aid to Link in the final fight against Ganon in OoT seals the Gerudo's fate, a last burst of power saved for exactly the right moment. In Wind Waker, her use of light arrows calls back to Link's use of the same in OoT, and her presence once again renders Ganondorf weak enough to be dominated by the young boy in a green tunic and a stupid hat. Really, he'd never succeed without her, and she does it all while getting the Pacifist achievement.

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11:44 PM on 04.10.2013  

Stranger in a Strange Land 1: Final Fantasy VII

First, a list of the games in no particular order, games that all have something ephemeral in common for me:

Final Fantasy VII
Castlevania: SOTN
Super Metroid
Thief II: The Metal Age
Wario Land
Chrono Cross
Gunstar Heroes
Ecco the Dolphin
Brave Fencer Musashi
Final Fantasy Tactics
Mischief Makers
Final Fantasy Legend
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time
Sonic Pinball
Silent Hill 2

Honestly. That list of games all do something, for me at least, that no other games have managed thus far. While some of my favorite games can craft worlds of stunning depth to lose oneself in, the games listed above elicited a specific emotional response that I find unique to the medium. These are the games that created an ambiance that felt alien, often unwelcoming and always intoxicating.

It's only possible to describe this feeling by example, and it's probably best to start with one many people have played. Today, I discuss what I loved enough about Final Fantasy VII to override the myriad things I hated about it.

I first played Final Fantasy VII when I was 9 years old. A friend of mine at the time, I'll call him J, had a technophile father who got a kick out of new technology, and they had every console and home theater gadget of the day. It was J who introduced me to the system by showing me this game "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" and later "Final Fantasy VII". I had developed as a gamer via the Sega Channel for the Sega Genesis, so what this new system had to offer was fascinating to me. At the time, Blockbuster was renting out consoles, and I begged my dad to let me rent a Playstation and the first Final Fantasy for the system.

Final Fantasy VII is a deeply conflicted game, composed of many chunks of gameplay and narrative that clash with and undermine one another. The first portion of the game bears no resemblance whatsoever to the rest. Being a rebels vs. evil empire tale, with the slight twist of the evil empire being a coorporation, the story follows an arc from an act of terrorism to a jaunt through slums meant to contextualize and justify the player's actions, ending with an arcade game of a chase sequence with robots, motorcycles, helicopters and explosions. Then sudddenly, there is an open expanse of green to be explored, for no other reason than that there's nothing left to do in the city of Midgar.

This portion of the game is not in any way consistent, however, any more than the game is as a whole. After arriving in the slums, one can "catch up" with a buxom lass named Tifa over drinks, which is so far consistent with the feel of the game. Just across the dirt path, however, lies a building full of cartoonish toughs challenging the player to open chests and explain game mechanics, one group flexing in unison to express their awe at the main character's expertise. Throughout all of this, characters are disappearing into one another, flailing the drumsticks that represent their arms as they do. Attempts at slapstick look more like alien performance art as a crude character model is flung across the room, hovers and spins for a bit, then sulks near a machine with a mysterious purpose. Plans are drawn to blow up yet another power plant, and then it really gets weird.

A train ride requires fake IDs, and our terrorists are found out. A chase ensues, but... Oddly most of the passengers don't seem that bothered. The player can stop and have strangely detached small talk with a couple of passengers eager to grant gifts on the way to disembarking prematurely. Through contrived circumstances, the main character falls, literally, from one story strusture into a sappy story of puppy love and cross dressing. In the course of the quest to cross dress, the main character can choose to enter one of the most surreal and unwelcoming settings in the history of fiction: a brothel called the Honeybee inn. This is where I fell in love with the game.

The first person to greet our intrepid gender bender is a woman dressed as a bee whose dialogue consists mostly of expressing contempt for the main character. For those of you who don't know, his name is Cloud, and he explicitly, as a plot point, does not have a personality. Not one of his own, anyway. It is at this point that Cloud can peep through keyholes to witness scenes so cryptic they seem to be plays put on by a troupe of psychopaths. The bee girl waits until Cloud has had his fill to comment and remind him to hurry the hell up. This oppressive mood truly comes out of nowhere, and it gets a lot worse. Cloud can choose to enter a room for loners or for those interested in group activities, and both options are openly considered deviant by the bee lady. In one, burly men in thongs pressure Cloud into doing... Something, something very ambiguous. In the other room, well, the game becomes sinister.

You think they go away by asking women dressed as bees to put makeup on you? Huh? Is that what you think?!

In the other room, another Cloud shows up to berate Cloud for even being there and for running away from his problems, and this causes Cloud to collapse. The game just went from silly to hostile in no time at all, and I felt like I was witnessing something not of this Earth. The sudden jumps in tone and content are a theme in the game, and to disorienting, to bewildering, but most of all to engrossing effect. A trip in a boat in which Cloud and his merry men and women fight a grotesque mutant to the death ends in a beach resort for no apparent reason. This gives way to a jaunt to a former mining town in which one of the characters lost many of the people he loved to a fire, and immediately afterward the party arrives at an amusment park. Not a broken down amusement park, a proper one with arcade games and deadly combat with monsters and roller coasters and fireworks. Then to a labor camp. Then to a Native American inspired tribal village cum astronomy institute. Then... Well then to Nibelheim.

Come to scenic Nibelheim, where your life is a lie.

Nibelheim is where Final Fantasy VII shows what it could have been, where the sudden hostility in a brothel in Midgar manifests in a town that Cloud insists he was born in, but which sees him as a stranger. Cloud is an unwelcome and weird guest, the populace seem to think, and this sense of displacement is the very vibe that made this game so engrossing. I was somewhere I didn't belong, where I wasn't welcome, but that only made it more enticing. The world of FFVII operated on a different, otherworldly logic; attempting to comprehend and operate within this madness produced a form of escapism with drug like properties for me.

A lot of this comes from the slapdash way in which the game is constructed (though without the stunning score by one mister Uematsu, it would have been much less impactful, the original Playstation era really represent his golden years). There is a plethora of ideas from very different design philosophies, even from different plots and gameplay mecahnics, that are crudely shoved into the same package. The development team went nuts, throwing any old idea into the mix until it became the bizarre dreamscape that is the final product. They may have intended to tell a coherent and compelling story, but the elements of the game go in so many different directions that it just seems schizophrenic, and this is what made the world of FFVII such a fascinating place to be. Countless times I and most anyone else playing the game found ourselves saying "what the hell is going on?" constantly. Why am I snowboarding all of the sudden? Why did the dude in the trenchcoat rip that statue thing in half, also why is it bleeding and why is he calling it mother? Why the hell is Red XIII's grandfather a floating humanoid with no legs?

Final Fantasy VII is and was a mess. It's riddled with plot holes and abandoned plot threads, the ending is a deus ex machina and most of the characters are poorly fleshed out archetypes. The gameplay is as repetitive as any classic JRPG and the art direction only seemed to exist for the prerendered backgrounds and cutscenes. As literature, it wouldn't pass muster, but as an experience to be had by a person exploring the insane contrivances of its world, it was dissociative in its potency. Not all of the games I'll be discussing in this series accomplish this for the same reasons, but they all share this in common: they all are crafted in ways that, at the very least, transported me to a mental space entirely removed from everyday life.

Dark Souls was engrossing, but not in the same way. Civilization IV is intoxicating, but for very different reasons. Shadow of the Collosus is awe-inspiring, but so very coherent and familiar at the same time. The experiences the games I listed in the first part of this post have given me are entirely unique to gaming, not even Vonnegut nor Palahniuk nor Kafka nor Dostoyevsky have managed to bring this experience to me, nor has any film or song or poem. For this, I treasure the video games I've been lucky enough to play, and I pity those who won't give the medium ample opportunity to draw them in as it has me. Hopefully, your experience has been as profound.

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7:30 AM on 04.09.2013  

Objectification ≠ Fantasizing

I haven't been around for various reasons, but when I saunter in once more, there's a familiar refrain droning on very much in the foreground. Something needs to be cleared up.

It has become clear to me that there's a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes "objectification", and this misunderstanding can be amply addressed by contrasting the word "object" with the word "subject". An object is a thing--a thing with intrinsic, unalterable properties common to all such objects, such as the wetness of water, which wholly determine the nature of the thing--which is acted upon or described by or thought about by a subject--a being with agency, the ability and will to make independent decisions and act from some personal volition.

This comes up for me due to the ongoing, persnickety argument over the "objectification of women" when "games" like this show up. First of all, it is this discussion of women which is in fact objectifying: in discussing "women" in this way (as a monilithic category with universal properties not just physical, but behavioral and mental) one ignores the fact that women are individual subjects with differing views and values and beliefs and ideals and so on.

To that end, pictures of women, in any state of dress or undress, are simply that: pictures of subjects. Women may choose to be photographed, and I've known many who choose to be photographed, some nude, because they enjoy showing off the bodies they work hard to cultivate and maintain (a cousin of mine included). There is no objectification in enjoying the female form, whether the reason is artistic or not. The objectification lies in attempting to delineate what can and cannot be done with, to, around women, or any other preposition you like.

Objectification is not the depiction of female anatomy, exaggerated or otherwise. Objectification is the conceptualizing of an independent entity with agency as categorically lacking agency, as being part of a uniform whole, essentially interchangable with any other part of that whole. Some materials which focus on the depiction of the female form have this issue, but not all such depictions treat women as a uniform body not of individuals, but of examples of a particular type. When women are spoken of as rocks are in a lithology text, this is objectification. When pictures of women intended for the titillation of homosexual women, straight men or bisexual whichever are created, this can only count as objectification if the act of appreciating the figure of the sex one finds sexually appealing is itself objectification. If that is the case in your mind, then the vast majority of the human species will have an ethical problem in your mind. If this is only true if the materials in question do not appeal to your sensibilities while others in that same category do, you have an ethical problem of your own.

That one can appreciate the form of an intimate relation while also recognizing and respecting their agency is conclusive proof by counterexample that the depiction of any human form is not sufficient basis to consider that depiction objectifying. If you wish to call games like this or this anything other than juvenille fantasy fodder, you will need to do better than "it has unrealistic pictures of lady parts for the sake of showing unrealistic lady parts." That ladies have parts and that these parts can be shown without the context of a personality is not itself objectifying unless the pictures women take of themselves are also objectifying or there is something more to this than, to quote one Conrad Zimmerman, "the male urge to fantasize an unrealistic feminine ideal". Men fantasize. Women fantasize. a key aspect of fantasizing is the creation of context from one's imagination. If men are fantasizing about these things, then they are by definition projecting their own ideas onto these materials.

So what's the issue? Is fantasizing wrong? Is fantasizing itself unethical? Then we are all guilty. Is it only wrong to fantasize about women? The answer cannot be yes if women are independent agents who answer this question for themselves, personally, as one individual whose opinion may differ from those of other women.

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2:41 PM on 02.26.2013  

Needless Exposition and the Sciencey-Wiencey

I am a monkey.

In the literal sense, yes, in that eosimias were monkeys, so my ancestors were monkeys, and you don't stop being what your ancestors were, but also in the figurative sense in that I like the idea of climbing on things and hopping around. So, yes, I enjoy Assassin's Creed games from time to time. It scratches that itch without the risk of falling very far and losing the integrity of my spine.

The story of Assassin's Creed, on the other hand, has been for me a fairly irritating, unwelcome guest, piggybacking onto the experience. Oh, it's not the infamous blandness of the central character, Mr. Desmond Miles, it's not even the cartoony presentation of the antagonists, which I actually appreciate. My issue begins with Assassin's Creed II and the Big Reveal. Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.

At the end of the second entry in the series, we learn that there's a big cataclysm in the wings that threatens to destroy the entire planet big time like for real. The cataclysm happens to be a coronal mass ejection from the sun that will cause a magnetic pole reversal and destabilize the Earth. Seconds after this explanation, Sean says that it's meant to be "the stuff of pseudoscience". Two tropes to be aware of here: Lampshade Hanging and Critical Research Failure (and YMMV, if you like).

Here we're being asked to accept as a genuine threat something that is most certainly not a threat, but also completely backwards. Assassin's Creed has always had a less than clear relationship with science, making it the softest of soft science fiction, but this was too much for me. It's one thing to ask the audience to accept the genetic memory nonsense, especially as it never really comes up again after the initial technobabble at the beginning of the first game, but this is the dark shadow of doom that's meant to be ominously looming over the whole plot, and it's impossible to take seriously for anyone aware of any of the following:

1. This threat is commonplace.
Coronal mass ejections (CME) happen fairly regularly and are not a big deal. Earth's magnetic field displaces the majority of the radiation to the poles (this leads to the aurora). Even with a weaker field...

Image credit: NASA

2. This threat has no teeth.
The worst that happens when a weakened field allows for more radiation to hit the Earth is an increase in the incidence of cancer due to more exposure to cosmic rays and high energy photons. It wouldn't wipe life from the face of the planet, and then there's the matter of a pole shift...

3. Geomagnetic reversal happens regularly on its own.

Image credit: NASA

A magnetic pole reversal is a regular event on Earth and leads to a temporarily weakened magnetic field with transient poles popping up all over the planet. The planet is just fine with this, and it cannot be caused by solar activity.

In other words, for me and others like me, the immediate reaction to this lazy reveal was "A coronal mass ejection! Goodness! I hope we have a magnetic field or we might see a statistically significant increase in incidences of cancer!" Not what they were going for, I reckon.

Not everyone will be bothered by this utter lack of effort on the part of the writers to understand the scientific concepts they were butchering, taping back together into a grotesque cartoon of their former selves and expecting us to take seriously, but for me, it's made the series even more absurd than it already was, and I no longer bother paying more than the most basic attention to the story as I monkey around. This is an issue largely because they didn't have to poach scientific theories to get end-of-the-world all over themselves, but they did in the laziest way possible, and it makes the whole thing look shoddy.

A perfect example of cataclysm done right is Chrono Trigger. Only the most vague of explanations is ever given for how the main baddie can do what it does, how time travel is even possible and so on, all while explicitly including magic as a get-out clause. And why not? No one really cares how it works, and an explanation more detailed than "well it's all very mysterious and the main character is at the center of it because stop asking questions" would just be distracting from the main point. If The Epic of Gilgamesh spent tens of stanzas explicating theories and systems to explain what it meant to be a demigod or how Enkidu could predict his fate, the story would be buried under unnecessary, and probably stupid, detail. If the writers of AssCreed really wanted a worldwide threat, they should have stuck to the Templars and their magic technology or simply left the cause mysterious.

And he made a time-travelling plane, which works by something something.

For another example of how this tendency to bring in bullshit, pseudoscience explanations for major story elements can undermine the integrity of a story, look at everyone's favorite George Lucas abomination: Star Wars. Remember how most people reacted to midichlorians? Of course the reaction was negative, the force didn't need an explanation, and trying to make it scientific pulled it from a mystical context into a more real context, and mystical things do not look good in that light. Suddenly, the willingness to suspend disbelief is challenged by all of the questions raised by the half-assed explanation. How do microorganisms lead to telekinesis? What do microbes have to do with guiding a space torpedo into a space vent? What are they doing in the blood if they affect mental abilities? And on and on and on.

Pretty much. (Image credit:

Detailed explanations can be beneficial to a story if employed judiciously. The original Ghost in the Shell comics were rife with ridiculously detailed footnotes from supernerd author Masamune Shirow (I'll never forget the little cartoon explanation of why the advanced prosthetics in the story could not be made significantly stronger than the bones and muscles they were attached to), but when he didn't have an explanation, one wasn't offered. This included some of the most significant parts of the story, such as the integration of neurological signals and digital information, but these were themes to be explored, not phenomena to be explained (it's currently impossible, after all), and Shirow knew that. The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov is another good example of this; it's not that Asimov didn't love detailing the ins and outs of his hypothetical psychohistory concept, but he stopped short where no explanation could be had. It was a tool to explore the themes of the story, and any explanation was flavoring for people who like that sort of thing (i.e. me).

When considering the inclusion of detailed, sciencey-wiencey explanations into your story, it's important to ask what that inclusion would accomplish. Is it in service to the metanarrative, helping in the exploration of the story's main themes? Is it the sort of detail that your audience would find stimulating for its own sake? Or, regretfully, does it only distract from the substance of what could otherwise be an engaging plot? In the case of Assassin's Creed, it's entirely the latter.

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4:21 PM on 02.24.2013  

Sexism: Et tu, Japan?

Recently, there has been quite the falderal over the adorably juvenile and relentlessly Japanese game Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus. Many people have been making a fuss about the game being indicative of endemic sexism in Japan undermining the humanity of Japanese women or something. I was one of these people, at first, until I thought about it and realized that my argument--something about how sharking wasn't a western idea and so on--wasn't something I could defend.

I believe the appropriate song should be obvious.

The argument seems to be that this sort of thing is not only indicative of entrenched sexism, of a creepy lolita sort at that, in Japanese culture, and that this sexism is profoundly damaging to women in Japan. What dissuaded me from this argument is that, first of all, while there are definitely serious issues with women's rights in Japan, those issues have a lot more to do with history than silly fantasies for teenage boys, second of all, fantasies of a sexual nature are no more or less problematic than violent fantasies so common in videogames, and finally that the USA and the rest of occidentia is nowhere near innocent of this, and the whole argument is a little hypocritical.


Let's all face it: this sort of thing isn't going anywhere. Further, this sort of thing being out in the open like this is just as new as the women's rights movement gaining ground. In other words, this sort of open display of somewhat creepy objectification coincides in timing with women having more equality around the world than ever before. Clearly, this isn't a barrier to women's success in gaining equal rights, or at least if it is a barrier, it's a trivial one.

What is difficult to argue against is that Japan has a serious problem with the lolita fetish; that is, pedophilia specific to little girls. This is not something to take lightly, but what effect does it really have? Well, I'm no expert, but in 1999 the Pacific Center for Sex and Society published an in-depth look at this very problem and came to this conclusion:

"The most dramatic decrease in sex crimes was seen when attention was focused on the number and age of rapists and victims among younger groups (Table 2). We hypothesized that the increase in pornography, without age restriction and in comics, if it had any detrimental effect, would most negatively influence younger individuals. Just the opposite occurred. The number of juvenile offenders dramatically dropped every period reviewed from 1,803 perpetrators in 1972 to a low of 264 in 1995; a drop of some 85% [...]"

While this study is dated, it is worth a read: Japanese people do not, as a whole, feel okay with sexual crimes, and they do consider pedophilia a crime despite what the internet may say, and the argument that Senran Kagura is a major contributor to either sexism or sex crimes is an argument with much less evidence on its side, born I expect more from xenophobia than reason.

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8:21 PM on 02.02.2013  

Games for adults

I've been unable to pursue my favorite hobbies in any capacity for about a week now. Procrastination has a way of causing work to amalgamate into a Final Fantasy style demon wall. It's a habit that respnsibility has not robbed me of, but it has changed what I look for in games significantly.

When I was a child (a time that includes, in my mind, all of my life up to at least college), video games were alternate realities for me to be consumed by. The RPG in particular was a genre that had a death grip on me. None of my favorite games of that period were near perfection, but they were long. In the case of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, it never really had to end thanks to modding, so in my case, it never did.

The first mod I added to Morrowind was a simple music swap; the swelling crescendos and sweeping melodies of the original soundtrack gave way to sounds like this. That simple change was it for me, it fit the mood of Vvardenfell perfectly, and I didn't want to leave. I wanted more to do, see and explore, more people to talk to and more hidden complxes to discover. I wanted to stay there, it became an obession. I enjoyed my time there at first, though over time the game simply didn't have enough to sate my appetite, and I started spending more time with mods than I did playing. Something about my experience never felt quite right.

This all took place during a fundamental change in my life. I was about to graduate high school. Most of my time was spent either in front of the computer screen or at the gym, both places for me to become someone else: someone who knew what he wanted to do, someone more attractive, anyone but who I was. I say this in retrospect, of course, at the time I was simply doing. At some point, I started to hate every second of it, and tried to pile on more. I worked out until I vomited and blacked out, and I wrote pages of modding guides and spent more and more time in game without sleep, trying to change something without having to face the more significant changes that I just wasn't ready for. Dealing with the negatives in life was always easy up to that point, I simply let the 40-80 hours of role-playing and monster slaying consume me. It wasn't working anymore, and never before or since has my hobby been more drug than passtime.

Eventually, somehow, I did embrace change. I charged into it, in fact; my hobby had become poison, a way for me to be alone with the person I hated most at the time, and I needed to escape. I went to college to study a scientific discipline and didn't return to games until I got a Steam account for the first time. One of the first things I bought was Morrowind, and I doggedly tried to reclaim some of the good that used to draw me in so easily. I felt nothing, nothing but ambivalence at what used to be my preferred reality. It wasn't until I purchased Bastion that I rediscovered my love of games.

Bastion is short. Bastion can be enjoyed in short bursts. Bastion offers challenge as a reward and story as spice. Bastion is a game for adults.

Gather 'round and I'll tell you a tale. Just hurry up and kill everything while I do it, I don't got all day, here.

Bastion made me realize that I didn't want games to be an escape from life anymore, I wanted them to be a part of my life, a life that now had challenges I wanted to face and people I wanted to be around and that could only accommodate games if they didn't need much of my time.

This isn't to say that long games are for children or anything like that, only that there's a reason so many of us have huge backlogs now, and it isn't just because there are more games to choose from. More responsibilities sap free time. That there are games of peerless quality that can offer a lot of substance in an hour or less is something truly valuable. We will get to the 100+ hour games in time, it just gets harder, and that's frustrating in itself.

I do kind of wish I had beaten Morrowind, though. I still don't know how it ends.

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10:21 PM on 01.25.2013  

Publishers are not entitled to success.

Recent events, namely the dissolution of THQ, oddly get me thinking about the effect of piracy on the video game industry. No, this is not anything like a claim that piracy is responsible for their demise, far from it. This is about the beliefs underpinning the claims of publishers and many developers that things like DRM, microtransactions and full price digital distributions are essential to their success and survival.

THQ's failure was not due solely to mismanagement, responsible for some pretty out-of-touch ideas like the UDraw, there was a more mundane, and some might say discouraging, issue with the company: demand for their products did not justify the magnitude of their investments. By the time Darksiders II was being developed, the company was already in trouble. The UDraw cost them dearly, but they stuck to the massive gamble that was Darksiders II, some claiming that the company was putting all of their hopes on its success. The game cost enough to develop that, according to at least one analyst, the game needed to sell a lot more than it did to break even.

The choice of Death as the main character was rather prescient, perhaps Freudian.

The important question to ask is: were the expected sales reasonable enough to justify the risk? The games we enjoy today are often classed into "AAA" and "not AAA", with the former essentially translating to "expensive". With THQ, the expectation seemed to be that a "AAA" publisher would continue to pony up for expensive development costs so that their games could have the full voice acting and modern grapchical capabilities that have become commonplace. There was eveery reason to think that this business model was failing long before the company finally imploded, and the insistence on putting all eggs in certain very expensive baskets may have been their doom. More to the point, it may be indicative of a fundamental, and baseless, assumption made by major publishers, including EA, Activision and Ubisoft.

Publishers seem to think that they are entitled to success.

Rather than consider that their biggest franchises are no longer in high enough demand to justify their significant financial risk, publishers revel in a grotesque blame game cum money-grubbing circus. Ubisoft's always-online DRM was because pirates are draining sales! EA's microtransactions are because new players need to be attracted! It may be difficult to face for fans of the major franchises published by these companies, but it may be that these games are bigger, prettier and more costly than they can afford to be. Maybe the sprint for bigger, better graphics and bigger, longer games has become untenable.

In any other industry, this would be the conclusion. Department stores have extensive measures in place to reduce the theft of jeans, but a significant chunk of capital is lost to the shoplifting of jeans every year. Despite this, jeans still sell enough that retailers can safely assume that this loss is entirely due to theft, not a lack of demand. A more appropriate example may be music. Music has a big pirating problem, as well, but the most successful bands are doing just fine. Of course, the recording industry has an equally large whining problem: they're not making as much money as they would like, so this must be because of piracy, and not a lack of demand for bad products.

This debate has been had ad nauseam, but it's safe to say that piracy does cut into profits to some extent, but this is not the serious sort of damage that shoplifting causes. Shoplifting leads to the loss of irreplacable units that cost money to make, but the pirate is only the loss of a hypothetical sale. The fact is, either way, piracy is not going away, so companies have to adapt. CEOs, most of them, are not idiots, they know this, hence the DRM and the microtransactions and the day-one DLC. What they don't want to face is the fact that the people who buy their games represent the only demand their games actually have. If that is not good enough, then the development costs are just too high.

The only reasonable choice for game publishers may be to give developers a tighter budget. We may not like to admit it, but there may not be enough of a market for these games to keep all of them going. These games are not entitled to success, and we are not entitled to games of this magnitude. Look at Logitech's recent abandonment of the console peripherals market. Many people were fans of their console peripherals, but not enough were, so now those people don't get logitech console peripherals. This is the sort of reality THQ should have been willing to face. The UDraw would never have happened if they hadn't been so desperate to keep a sinking ship afloat with the same amount of gold on board.

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